Autonomous mobile robots, or AMRs, are arguably one of the most exciting technologies in the robot market. They are differentiated from the other key technology in this market — automated guided vehicles, or AGVs — because they are capable of autonomously changing routes without human intervention, and they can do so using onboard navigation, with no need for external infrastructure. AMR sales are booming, particularly in the e-commerce order-fulfillment sector.
Nearly 20,000 AMRs supporting order picking were shipped in 2019 – double the number shipped the previous year, and more than doubling the total number of AMRs in use.
Interact Analysis’s experts on the ground have collected and analyzed data from vendors and customers and predict that shipments of AMRs will grow to over 530,000 in 2024, bringing the total number in operation to more than 1.1 million. This is significant leap from the 36,000 AMRs operating in warehouses at the end of 2019.
AMRs for order fulfillment: A glance at the technologies on offer
Lack of labor, huge variations in seasonal demand, customer expectations for cheaper and faster delivery, and the rapid uptake of e-commerce, particularly during the coronavirus crisis, have made picking and sortation in order fulfillment fertile ground for the autonomous robot sector.
Goods-to-person (G2P) robots are projected to capture by far the largest market share, but all robot types will be winners. Most G2P robots installed to date navigate using QR codes, and these are not always considered to be true AMRs. Lidar technology is increasingly being used, however, to avoid the need for infrastructure and a fixed grid of routes. As the technology improves, we forecast these types of G2P robots will see significant growth.
These robots are preferred by big retailers and larger third-party logistics providers (3PLs), which tend to introduce large numbers of them in one fell swoop but requires a certain them to commit to a longer payback period. Though there have been fewer than 1,000 deployments G2P robots today, our estimation is that by 2024, there will be almost 7,000, and the G2P installed base will be almost 800,000 robots.
G2P revenues by end industry will be dominated by the general merchandise sector, on 44%, with 3PL on 19%. On a regional level, China and the U.S. will be the top two investors, accounting for 35% and 19% of revenues, respectively.
Person-to-goods (P2G) robots are a lower-cost solution and are quick and non-disruptive to implement. P2G robots have been mostly installed by smaller retailers and 3PLs. Customers can add them in phases with minimal disruption to their operations.
For companies operating on the smaller scale, P2Gs can be the answer, as they require a much lower capital expenditure than G2P solutions. Whilse there were around about 100 deployments of P2G robots in 2019, we expect that number to increase dramatically to 2,400 in 2024, resulting in a P2G installed base of approximately 130,000 AMRs.
Up to 48% of P2G revenues will come from the 3PL sector from 2019 to 2024, with general merchandise providing 36%. The top two revenue shares by country will stand as follows: 38% for the U.S. and 19% for China.
Mobile robots with robotic arms have seen limited deployment. Outside the logistics sector, they are also used in semiconductor factories for handling wafers which are expensive and fragile. Using robots to handle them is a cost-effective solution, avoiding breakages.
In the logistics sector, mobile manipulators can be used for picking similar sized/shaped objects, and IAM Robotics is one of the leaders in developing this technology for use in the distribution sector.
Whereas in 2019, mobile robots with robotic arms were shipped in their hundreds, we anticipate that fast evolution of this technology will result in sales of upwards of 5,000 units by 2024, mainly to logistics companies.
Sortation robots are the new kids on the block, thought to be a couple of years behind other AMRs in the order fulfillment sector, with many customers just in the piloting phase. Interestingly, these robots tend to replace older, proven technology rather than human workers.
Sortation robots are relatively new technology but, in line with other AMRs, we predict their future to be rosy, with companies such as LIBIAO/Tompkins Robotics, GreyOrange, and Geek+ pushing the boundaries of the technology to increase versatility, capacity and accuracy.
Our analysts predict that around 300,000 sortation AMRs will be in action globally by 2024, with revenues standing at $550m for that year. This is a sharp rise from the meager less than $10 million revenue in 2018.
The ‘Amazon effect’ — intended or unintended?
What has sparked off the exponential growth in the use of AMRs in order picking? The massive increase in online shopping caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has doubtless been a spur, but there is another factor in the shape of the world’s largest online retailer – the behemoth known as Amazon.
Jeff Bezos’s company has long used robotic technology in its distribution centers. It is reported that Amazon added 15,000 G2P robots to its order-fulfillment centers in 2016 and at the end of that year had 45,000 across 20 facilities. We estimated that it added another 55,000 robots to its global army in 2017, and that number has continued to spiral, to an estimated 250,000 G2P AMRs on its warehouse floors in August 2020.
Up until 2012, Amazon purchased G2P robots from major AMR manufacturer Kiva Systems, but it purchased the company that year for $775 million. Shortly afterwards, in what could be described as an astute commercial move, Amazon created an AMR supply vacuum for its competitors by halting the sale of Kiva robots externally, having them produced only for its own needs.
Amazon’s disruptive action has had what may be an unintended consequence. Dozens of newly established AMR manufacturers have rushed to fill the vacuum left by Kiva, and the result is that the technology is moving forward in leaps and bounds as retailers in highly competitive markets recognize the need for the latest automation technology.
AMRs have won their spurs
The AMR industry has seen rapid growth over the past few years and is fast turning into a multi-billion dollar sector. The rapid pace of growth forecast up to 2024 will be largely driven by the wider roll-out by customers that have already conducted their initial trials.
Interestingly, however, new customers are tending to bypass the initial pilot phase and moving straight on to partial or full roll-outs, as the technology has been proven elsewhere.
About the author
Ash Sharma has spent close to 20 years in technology research on several sectors, including industrial automation and smart manufacturing, smart home, solar power and energy storage, drones and robotics, medical technology and building automation. He is senior research director for Interact Analysis‘ robotics and warehouse automation research, among other topics.